Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride

I was born in 1992. I have a Bachelor’s degree in English and a teaching certification. I am currently working on a Master’s degree in Education. I have never been an expert in anything; I can write a fine paper and do my fair share of ruminating on literary themes, but I am not an expert. I am not a “Master’ of anything yet, and there’s nothing I’ve studied long enough to have ended up feeling like I can call myself an expert. That said, there are lots of things that I’m not exactly a novice in, either. Counting preschool and kindergarten, this is my twentieth consecutive year of being a student in the American education system.

This puts me in a kind of strange situation regarding expert and novice learning approaches. I know more about literature, language, and writing than your average person, but not enough to feel like I’m in the same learning category as a professor. The same can be said about me and a lot of things. I suppose I am somewhere in between novice and expert, but as I can only remember having been one of those, I’ll focus on that.

Literary criticism is kind of the bane of a lot of English majors. I don’t understand that, as I quite enjoy it, but to someone coming out of high school and used to high school English, a literary critical essay is one of the most confusing things you could be expected to do. I remember the first time I had to do this, I had no idea what I was doing and nobody was explaining it to me. For the uninitiated, those of you whose English courses in college ended with 200X, upper level criticism is a strange blend of that you’re probably familiar with. It is not unlike other research papers, but in my opinion there’s a certain nuance to it that you don’t find in other writing. You’re very carefully deconstructing arguments from other critics and rearranging their thoughts with your own to create an almost unbelievable niche interpretation of a piece of literature. The first time I did this was with The Wife of Bath’s Tale, and I wrote something about her stereotypically masculine behavior and how it related to the beliefs in astrology in Chaucer’s time. It was sort of rudimentary, but at the time it was a seemingly insurmountable task. I kept being told by the professor (whom I respect very much) that I needed to “find critical articles’ and “have a conversation with them.’ To someone who has just switched into a liberal arts degree, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. I ended up having to turn to a nontraditional student in the class for help; she let me read some of her papers from the past and helped me through the process, explaining what it meant to “have a conversation’ with your critics.

Over the course of my English degree I wrote dozens, possibly over a hundred papers. I’ve never taken the time to count because I’m afraid to see how many pages it would add up to. By now I’m fairly good at it and I find myself in the nontraditional student’s place. I’m not exactly an “expert’ who has been published in reputable journals, but I no longer find the prewriting process confusing. I can even help out some of my young English major friends. Last year, while I student taught, I took over AP Literature (12th grade) and taught them to write their first upper level critical essays, in the style of 300 and 400 level English classes. That was one of the hardest things I’ve done, because I wasn’t close enough to their position to think like them but I wasn’t enough of an expert to answer their questions perfectly. I’ve now spent a large portion of my college career feeling like a confident, but not master, writer.

As I finish my Masters, I also work part time in the University archives, where my boss is truly an expert at what she does. She knows the ins and outs of that place better than I’ve ever seen anyone know anything. This is my fourth year there and while I feel confident that I am no longer a novice, I still sometimes just don’t “get’ what she’s talking about. I don’t always understand the logic through which things are done. That’s okay, of course. It isn’t technically my job to understand everything I’m doing, so long as it gets done properly. But I like to know, because I find it interesting. She has a way of explaining things that makes you feel like you’re missing out on the 30 years of archival experience you need to really participate in the conversation. It’s been too long since she was a novice, but she no longer treats me like one, either. It can be hard to reach out to someone who is kind of in the middle of learning.

Because I’m not quite old enough or experienced enough to feel like a proper expert in anything, I like to surround myself in life with people who are. Looking at my personal learning network from the brainstorming activity, I have a wide pool of people I can fish from (bad metaphor?) for information, direction, and advice on almost any topics. I am friends with archivists, teachers, watchmakers, golfers, nerds, athletes, social activists, geographers, literary critics, poets, painters, electricians, wine enthusiasts, network technicians, and more. Most of these people are older than me and they all seem to have something they are very good at. Someday, I hope to be very good at teaching. I’ll be in their position. For now, I’m sometimes left feeling like I’m always a bridesmaid, and never a bride. I’m there, among the learning, and I contribute my part and have a good time and can speak up when appropriate. But I’m not the little girl catching the bouquet and I’m not the bride. Maybe this is a bad metaphor too, but I wish Benander had focused a little more on the intermediary period between novice and expert. The journeyman, I guess. That’s where I feel I am a lot of the time. It doesn’t bother me, of course, because every expert goes through an intermediate stage. Sometimes your intermediate knowledge is so much greater than someone else’s novice knowledge that you can play an expert, and that’s a valuable learning experience for both people. These people inspire me, motivate me, teach me, share with me, and also sometimes learn from me. I have a fantastic learning network that I have been lucky enough to stumble into. Most of them are, let’s say, over 30, so they’re far more deeply invested into their fields than I am.

I’m not exactly sure how to wrap this up, to be honest. As a school teacher, students of certain grade levels are expected to have certain knowledge levels, and you are to function at least partially as the “expert.’ Simple…ish. Simpler, at least. The same can be said at the university level for undergraduates and at a professional level during professional development. The vaguely Confucian relationship inherent in certain learning situations implies a teacher-student or expert-novice dynamic, and while I loved the Bernander article enough to send it to other people, I wanted to use this essay to give everyone a bit of insight into the mindset of an intermediate learner. The graduate student, who is in some ways an expert but in some ways a novice, has a different perspective than what was given in our readings. I simultaneously understand both yet identify with neither sides of the expert-novice spectrum. When you’re talking about experiential learning, being “somewhat experienced’ can be strange.

I’m not complaining, of course; I enjoy this stage quite a bit. It’s a stage of learning that can be characterized by rapid growth, strong learning networks, personal learning skills, forward momentum and possibility, all grounded with a somewhat strong knowledge base. Graduate students aren’t experts though, and I certainly don’t think they should be teaching classes to other university students. Maybe it’s better to always stay an intermediate in at least one field? If you’re constantly putting yourself back into the novice position in one subject as you move towards mastery in another, you’ll stay in touch with both sides of the spectrum in a way that lets you connect more with your students and your teachers (of any kind). I have always tried to do that in my life, and I imagine I will continue to do so. Instructors, educators, bosses, supervisors – whatever you self-identify as – if you’re teaching something you need to understand the entire learning spectrum. I do currently feel like in all aspects I’m in the middle of that spectrum – but that’s no less of a valid contribution to the discussion, I think. Someone has to act as a middleman or translator for the experts, after all.

7 thoughts on “Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your reflection. Your ability to clearly express your feelings in writing, screams ‘expert writer’. Reading expertly written words about being a ‘competent, but not expert’ writer had me thinking about how long I was considered an adult, before I actually felt like an adult.

    It also made me wonder how many of the people we think of as experts…feel like experts. Since no one knows everything on a given topic, I guess it really comes down to a confidence that you know ‘enough’. I have no idea when that will be for me, but It makes the Benander article all that more interesting when I think in terms of confidence as an instructor vs. confidence as a student rather than novice vs. expert.

    This is going to be a fun semester.

  2. I, too, really enjoyed your writing style. Your thoughts flow well to create concise points and I always appreciate humor in educational writing! First of all, I think you’re a little too hard on yourself by saying you’re a expert at nothing. Granted, I don’t know the depth of your knowledge on specific matters. What I do know is that an “expert” is a matter of opinion and interpretation. My host teacher during student teaching used to say “life is like a roundabout, when your in it, you own it. So if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing, fake it like everyone else.”

    You make a great point about continually engaging in new activities to maintain the perspective of a learner. I think that is healthy in any profession, but particularly ours. In life and careers complacency is a silent killer.

    You also caught my attention with the comment about your job at archives. You said you “don’t always understand the logic through which things are done.” In my experience, that is one of the biggest differences I’ve witnessed between novice and experts. Without the experience needed to see the logic or big picture, jobs seem fragmented and disconnected. I spoke about my own lack of efficiency and time management as a novice aquarist due to that lack of perspective and failing to see logic behind a task. Time has combatted some of my shortcomings, but early on I realized I needed to ask more questions and have things explained in detail to begin to see how the various parts worked together. When you get an answer that “makes you feel like you’re missing out on 30 years archival experience,” I would imagine that doesn’t boost your self-confidence? Are there insights you’ve gained for the way you would present background information or fill in missing gaps in information based on the way your expert boss has done with you?

    1. “When you get an answer that “makes you feel like you’re missing out on 30 years archival experience,” I would imagine that doesn’t boost your self-confidence?”

      Luckily, I have a friendly enough relationship with my boss that I can tell her in a pretty straightforward manner that she’s not making sense and that she’s letting her experience cloud her explanation. But yeah, sometimes it’s pretty disheartening to have her explain exactly why we don’t do something and feel like I’m already supposed to know it. You think after a few years you should know everything!


      “Are there insights you’ve gained for the way you would present background information or fill in missing gaps in information based on the way your expert boss has done with you?”

      Yes. I’ve learned that it’s almost ALWAYS worth it to take the time to explain something the long way. Sometimes in the professional world (including teaching, of course) we feel so rushed that we figure the surface level explanation will do because we don’t have time for the whole thing. The in-depth and more fleshed out background info, even if it might seem irrelevant at the time, might always be useful for understanding something in the future. And you might lose, what, a few extra minutes? 5, tops? I’m rarely in so much of a rush that 5 minutes of explanation is going to kill my momentum. She gets that, too. Listening for 5 minutes can be a bit of a drag for someone with a modern attention span, and sometimes you feel like you’re getting talked down to when you’ve heard half of it before, but I think if you want to reach expert it’s essential to have a level of understanding beyond what just *seems* essential. Those connections are important.

  3. Nicholas,

    Thanks for your well written introspective piece. Your peers have done a nice job of addressing some of your larger points, but I’ll mention a few that occur to me as a result of your thoughts.

    You open the idea that between novice and expert lies a continuum of experiences. And perhaps expert isn’t a discrete destination, but rather just more points on an infinite continuum? Which leads to the inevitable question of what is an expert?

    Ever seen the movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”? Here’s a link to the preview. You can quickly see where this leads.

    Here’s someone who’s 85 and has been making sushi all his life and still strives to master his craft. Is it necessary to try new things in order to re-appreciate the perspective of the novice, or is that perspective something we can carry with us regardless of the heights of our own expertise?

    Are there some cultural differences when it comes to assessing expertise? Particularly in Alaska, on the frontier, are our collective standards of expertise lower?

    I like how you mention the vaguely Confucian relationship between teacher and student, expert and novice. Is “expert” something attained or something given. That is, are we as students as much responsible for someone being an expert as they are? We permit someone to be the expert in a teacher-student relationship – but I imagine we’ve all had an educational experience where we’ve revoked that status – and the learning process becomes that much more challenging for all.

    Many good and interesting points, but I like how you wrap things together with a few thoughts on the value of multiple perspectives across the continuum. When we’re building learning experiences, it is important to consider how the potential variety of participants will approach a given assignment or set of expectations.

    Nice work.


    1. I have seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I didn’t watch it with so much of an educator’s mindset so perhaps I should revisit it.

      I think of “expert” as a kind of platonic ideal that is defined in relation, I guess? I don’t think it’s fair to say that our standards up here are lower, just that the relationship between the novice and expert is inherently different. Expert is defined in relationship to the novice – because we’re a “frontier” (even though I don’t like that word!), we have fewer experts and more novices, so the role of an expert is a little over inflated. The big-fish-small-pond thing, right? Being a big fish in a small pond isn’t a bad thing, even if people sometimes like to spin it that way! You can play second fiddle and still play a pretty mean fiddle, you know? I think you’re right in that assertion that the definition of “expert” is dependent on the relationship to the student. That’s something for me to think about for a while…

      1. Nice comments, Nicholas. I agree with your assessment of expert as a sort of platonic ideal.

        Thinking a bit about this conversation and I had a thought about how nebulous the idea of expert is in some instances. Except when it comes to medicine perhaps? When we or a loved one has something serious, we seek out “expertise” even flying across the country if the issue is dire enough.

        Are there disciplinary differences between expectations of expert?

        For Jiro, I see that as an example of extreme expertise, and at the same time he still sees opportunity to strive towards a higher level. I wonder if he would even know where to begin instructing say me, someone who is a near complete novice on the subject? There’s so much to say, so much to know from that vantage point? How would someone like that, mentally, go about organizing and preparing a learning experience?

  4. Nicolas
    I really enjoyed reading the new perspectives you bring to this topic. Learners don’t just jump from novice to expert; every learner goes through some experience to get there.
    The story you told about learning to write a literary criticism reminded me of my own experience learning how to write a memo. But I ended up not asking questions (as some novice learners do) and ended up having to rewrite it. So finding someone who knows more about this topic than you and reading examples are really good strategies for problem solving.
    I also agree with you when you discuss how it may be a good idea to stay in multiple places on the spectrum. Expert learners should always be aware of how it feels to be a novice learner.

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